Orchestra Moderne NYC debuts with a program on the American immigration experience

Sun Oct 08, 2017 at 1:31 pm
Amy Andersson conducted the debut concert of Orchestra Moderne NYC Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Derek Brad

Amy Andersson conducted the debut concert of Orchestra Moderne NYC Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Derek Brad

Orchestra Moderne NYC, the spanking-new symphonic ensemble founded by conductor Amy Andersson and dedicated to reaching wide audiences with “culturally relevant” programming, made its debut last night at Carnegie Hall, with results that were both frustrating and rewarding.

The concert, titled “The Journey to America: From Repression to Freedom (Part I),” took as its theme the currently hot topic of immigration.  Saturday’s performances of four works in a film-score style might be described collectively as “The Journey to Coherence: From the Oppression of Thick, Overorchestrated Sound to the Liberation of Clear, Effective Musical Drama.”

The featured work, closing the program, was Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island: The Dream of America, a substantial piece for large orchestra, seven readers, and projected historic photographs.  This piece, and Copland’s evergreen Fanfare for the Common Man, hit their targets best; the other two works came off less well, owing to the limitations of the film style itself.

Over the past quarter-century or so, the symphonic film score has developed an idiom of its own, full of tropes unknown to the likes of Tchaikovsky or Mahler.  The most obvious one is that little cymbal crescendo that precedes every surge of emotion.

More significantly, this kind of composing favors changes in rhythm and tempo over harmonic interest. Passages may sit on one chord for pages at a time, or rock back and forth endlessly between the two basic chords, tonic and dominant. This gives the composer more flexibility to match the music to screen action frame by frame, rather than get it all tangled up in a separate “drama” of musical dissonance and resolution.  But in a concert hall, without film images to relate to, it makes for a rather static listening experience.

Likewise, the tendency of film composers to have the whole orchestra play all the time can produce an unrelentingly thick texture that the ear soon tires of.

Composer Lolita Ritmanis has been expertly building that film-orchestra sound for some time now, amassing a mile-long list of movie and video-game credits. The daughter of Latvian immigrants, she wrote in a note for Saturday’s program about the long-awaited liberation of Latvia from Soviet rule and the return of enlightenment, symbolized by the building of a new National Library, nicknamed the “Palace of Light.”  It was those events, she wrote, that influenced her 2014 piece Overture to Light, which received its U.S. premiere Saturday.

Ritmanis’s note described how each segment of the work matched some aspect of the library story.  And one could indeed imagine this atmospheric music accompanying an inspiring film on the subject. But without the “visuals” supplied in the program note, the piece itself didn’t have the structural force to excite those emotions on its own.

The atmospheric score, making much use of the percussion washes and sparkles often favored by film composers, had its up-tempo moments, but its episodic form didn’t generate the kind of momentum that would sweep a listener along. Still, moment by moment, this was well-made, colorful music.

(Incidentally, in the extra-effort-to-be-user-friendly category, this concert included a sign-language interpreter—not just for the opening remarks on immigration by Karen Johal, an actor and daughter of immigrants, but for Ritmanis’s wordless orchestral piece.  During the music, the interpreter–not named in the program, and standing stage right–mimed whatever instrument was featured at the moment, as if saying “now the trombone, now the harp,” etc.  Apparently when Orchestra Moderne says it intends to be inclusive, it means inclusive.)

In his program note, composer Steven Lebetkin proudly claimed a musical pedigree going back to the 1930’s emigré film composer Karol Rathaus and Rathaus’s teacher Franz Schreker.  And indeed, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, in its world premiere, sounded like a middle-European, neoclassical piece struggling to emerge from a miasma of heavy film scoring.

The concerto’s finest moment was its opening gesture, as soloist Momo Wong spun out a long-breathed violin solo over a persistent rhythm in a single kettledrum (perhaps a tribute to the gentle timpani solo that opens Beethoven’s Violin Concerto).  But then a thick wave of cinematic sound washed that moment away, and for the rest of the piece the soloist struggled to be heard over the relentless tutti of throbbing strings, surging horns, and blaring brass.

Perhaps the concerto’s balance problems could be addressed in a recording studio; in live performance, there was little conductor Andersson could do to prevent her stageful of musicians from swallowing the solo part. She could, however, have looked harder for the narrative thread in the work’s first movement, with its alternation of noisy chariot-race music with more reflective moments. 

The second movement, titled Ballade after the Chopin pieces by that name, lived up to its namesakes for free yet convincing form, attractive melodies, and adventurous harmony—or would do so, with a severe pruning of its orchestration. In the rare moments when the orchestra quieted down, violinist Wong’s sweet, slender tone was a pleasure to hear.

The finale began with a fine, suspenseful slow introduction, then swung into a (potentially) infectious dance tune that needed much more lightness in scoring and execution.  The solo part was evidently quite brilliant and challenging, and Wong appeared to be navigating it with panache, but in this loud environment she needed a sign-language interpreter of her own.

The Copland Fanfare opened the concert’s second half big and bold, played briskly but without rushing.  This piece has had such a variety of patriotic sentiments projected onto its craggy features, why not also the saga of immigration?

With Copland for a prelude, Boyer’s spoken-word piece recalled Lincoln Portrait, but with a warmer human-interest story. Ellis Island included historic photos of immigrants projected on the stage’s back wall during the piece’s opening and closing segments. 

These looked a little washed out by the bright stage lighting, and in any case they paled by comparison with the seven first-person immigrant narratives, selected by the composer from an oral-history archive and eloquently spoken by seven actors over evocative orchestral underscoring.

No stage director was credited in the program, but the actors—Stacey Lightman, Myles Phillips, Rori Nogee, Daniel Kreizberg, Annie Meisel, Austin Ku, and Carol Beaugard—found a consistent and compelling style of delivery, frank and forceful but not overly histrionic, to tell the immigrants’ often harrowing, sometimes humorous, ultimately triumphant stories.

Begun before the events of September 11, 2001, and finished afterward, Boyer’s score has enjoyed immense popularity—by his count, more than 170 performances by 75 orchestras so far—and it wasn’t hard to hear why. The music was beautifully crafted to enhance the stories, with the transitions sensitively handled and the full blaze of cinematic orchestration used sparingly but effectively. 

With a recitation of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” from the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and a Coplandesque blare of brass to top it all off, it would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t swell with patriotic emotion at the end.

Signs that an audience made up of concert newcomers was present included uninhibited applause after the concerto’s first movement and, conversely, enthusiastic but brief applause for Ellis Island, lasting barely long enough to being back all the performers plus composers Boyer, Ritmanis, and Lebetkin for one bow.

 


One Response to “Orchestra Moderne NYC debuts with a program on the American immigration experience”

  1. Posted Oct 11, 2017 at 7:02 am by Linda Shell

    I’m in the throes of a deadline with taxes so last evening for me was a welcome respite to hear this extraordinary concerto.. a work of artful storied exchange between violin and orchestra that nudges the depths of human experience… speaking volumes about the eras Mr. Lebetkin was exploring
    Thank you on behalf of all who shared these creative gifts ..A resounding
    BRAVO!!!!
    Love Hugs

Leave a Comment